By Shawn Perich
John Kaplanis wants to meet Minnesota’s moose biologists. As the executive director of the Northern Ontario Sportsmen’s Alliance, Kaplanis, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has what he calls a “million dollar question” for the state’s moose experts: If biologists knew 10 years ago what they now know about Minnesota’s moose decline, would they have changed their management strategy?
This question is particularly relevant for folks who hunt or otherwise enjoy moose in northwestern Ontario, which lies north of Minnesota. Moose hunters and provincial biologists are noticing a decline in moose numbers that started in the south, near the Minnesota border, and is moving northward. They are concerned because Minnesota’s situation has become so dire the state closed the moose hunt this year. Some Ontario hunters are wondering if Ontario won’t be far behind.
“The moose are still out there in the Thunder Bay District, but they are found in pockets of habitat, especially in the south,” Kaplanis said. “Further north, they’re doing a little better.”
For anyone familiar Minnesota’s moose story, where a once-abundant herd crashed over the past decade, listening to what Kaplanis has to say is eerily familiar. He wonders if northwestern Ontario’s moose are faced with a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances. Warmer weather, more parasites and disease, diminished habitat and increased predation may be adding up to big trouble for Ontario’s moose.
During the past decade, mild winters have allowed white-tailed deer to become more abundant and expand their range into northern areas once dominated by moose. Deer carry a brain worm parasite, which is often deadly when transmitted to moose. Good population data isn’t available, but many hunters believe the growing deer herd has fueled an increase in wolf numbers, too. And black bears, which prey on young moose calves, have become more abundant since the popular spring bear hunt was closed over a dozen years ago. The past decade has also seen the collapse of the region’s forest products industry, so there is little logging occurring to create the young forest habitat moose prefer.
Just about everything that is happening in Ontario has happened in Minnesota, too.
Although the moose is northwestern Ontario’s primary game animal, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources spends little on moose management. The MNR does winter aerial surveys of moose, but must cover such a vast area most places are only surveyed every few years. According to information in the Ontario hunting regulations, in 2012 the Thunder Bay District had an estimated population of 46,500 moose and a hunter harvest of 2,797 animals. This does not include native moose harvests, which are not regulated by the province.
Kaplanis, an avid moose hunter, doesn’t believe hunters are ready to make adjustments to provincial hunting seasons. Nor does he think hunting is a major factor in the moose decline. However, he hopes the MNR doesn’t simply reduce the number of harvest tags as the moose population decreases without trying proactive research and management strategies.
“We still have a good moose population,” he said. “And hunting license revenues support moose management. If we act now, perhaps we can turn it around.”
One question Kaplanis thinks must be answered is: What is happening to moose calves? As in Minnesota, calf recruitment—the number of young moose entering the population each year—is declining. He wonders if the cows are not becoming pregnant or if predators are taking large numbers of calves, as hunters commonly speculate. One of Minnesota’s current moose research projects is looking at the reproductive success of radio-collared cow moose.
Kaplanis hopes to find a way to arrange a meeting between Minnesota DNR and Ontario MNR biologists so they can trade notes about what they know and don’t know about moose. He says the meeting could be mutually beneficial, because a healthy moose population in Ontario may have a welcome spill-over effect for Minnesota. He thinks opening lines of communication and sharing information could lead to more informed decision making on both sides of the border. For Ontario, that could begin with the development of a new moose management plan, a step Minnesota has already taken.
In a recent opinion piece published in “The Outdoors Guide,” Kaplanis writes: “Whatever happened to Minnesota’s moose is happening here…The Ontario Government also needs to get on board with a plan to keep our moose population healthy and they need to devote money to this plan. If they don’t have it (money), then they need to go and find it.”
Echoing a line frequently heard in Minnesota during the past decade, Kaplanis asks, “Do we care enough about moose that we want to continue to have them on the landscape 20 or 30 years from now?”
For Ontarians, a mooseless future is troubling to contemplate. Writes Kaplanis: “If we don’t act now, then in 10 years we may be looking at cancelling moose hunting in parts of northwestern Ontario that were once known for having the highest moose population densities in North America. That would be a sad day.”
In Minnesota, that day has already arrived.